Still not sold on Muskrat Falls

Gerry Phelan
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Twelve months ago, I wrote that we were in for a pivotal year. My column on Jan. 6, 2012, said: “Sometime in the second or third quarter of 2012, decisions will be made regarding the Lower Churchill project. The Public Utilities Board review of the Muskrat Falls development is expected by the end of March. Even before that, Jan. 31 is the deadline for Nalcor and Nova Scotia’s Emera to finalize the deal.”

Well, look at everything that’s happened since.

The PUB has been thrown to the wind, dissed by the government to the extent legislation to change or end its mandate might not be too far off.

The provincial government has given Muskrat Falls the green light, and given the results of three public opinion polls, who could blame them?

Yes, we can interpret those surveys many ways, but for the most part voters have given the development the thumbs-up.

Here’s more of what I wrote last January: “These are not decisions for the faint of heart, and don’t let anyone pretend otherwise. The

$6-billion-plus project has the potential to jettison us into the better-prepared-than-others, electricity-wise, category, or leave our children and grandchildren with a debt that, well, let’s just say they won’t be kind or happy if we are wrong.”

The only thing that has changed is the cost. It is now more than

$7 billion and rising.

Surely if the price of a hospital for Corner Brook or renovations to Confederation Building or any other big project can be expected to increase due to unforeseen developments, or labour, materials and borrowing costs, well let’s accept this $9-billion or $10-billion project for what it is.

I also wrote in January 2012, “I do not have enough information to make an informed decision. I doubt most of the politicians do. I have read what I can, and I am not convinced it is the way to go. … The months ahead will bring lots of questions from the opposition and groups that will spring up to oppose the development. Every question deserves an answer. We trust the government will do the right thing, even if it means saying, ‘No, things have changed, and this is no longer a good investment.’”

Well, that didn’t happen. Indeed, the roller-coaster continued.

Some questions were answered, but dozens more were swept aside with the standard line that Muskrat Falls has had “more scrutiny than any other project in our province’s history.”  

Those words are etched in my memory. I’m not sure who developed that often repeated quote, but it is an unfortunate phrase that immediately elicits the response, “really?”

We had a few hours of specific debate and, yes, plenty of talk on subsequent pieces of legislation, but I still can’t fathom why the government has been so hell-bent on forging ahead, appearing at times to throw caution to the wind.

The fiscal update alone — delivered to the province before Christmas — is good reason to push the pause button.

I’m not saying kill the project, but I wish I felt more comfortable about it.

Perhaps if it had been handled a different way and if there were improved financial circumstances I’d be on the Muskrat Falls train willingly, rather than still raising questions about the plan.   

Again, here’s what I wrote last January: “The legacy will not belong to Danny Williams. This is how Kathy Dunderdale will be remembered. Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days from now, we want to remember 2012 as something spectacular, something great, not the apocalyptic period some think we are about to endure.”

It wasn’t apocalyptic, but it hasn’t been pretty. History books will tell the tale of Kathy Dunderdale, who has spent the first year and more of her first elected term in office ensuring Muskrat Falls gets done.

I pray that kids decades from now will be told of a visionary leader who made a difference environmentally, financially and politically to this province.

We sure haven’t been as kind to Joey Smallwood and his Churchill Falls decisions.


Gerry Phelan is a journalist

and former broadcaster.

He can be reached at

Organizations: Public Utilities Board

Geographic location: Muskrat Falls, Nova Scotia, Corner Brook

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Recent comments

  • EDfromRED
    January 05, 2013 - 13:59

    Something tells me that if the Public Service gets it's promised cuts in the Spring, the Confederation Buildings 8th Floor Propaganda Brigade will be hiring like gangbusters! They are going to need as many foot soldiers of falsity they can muster in order create comments and skew polls, so they can delude themselves that the people can't smell a Muskrat! In the inevitable future public inquiries, It'll be interesting to see how many of those in power promoting this fiasco now, will develop total amnesia as to their roles in this mess.

  • a business man
    January 04, 2013 - 17:11

    As a Newfoundland citizen and voter, my support for MF is not based on anything other than my ability to make money. One of the reasons why I support MF is because my Nova Scotia business interests will have cheaper energy. I use my support and vote in Newfoundland to benefit my interests in Nova Scotia, even though MF MAY be disastrous to Newfoundland. It is my right to do so. I don't need any information other than the impact on the bottom line. I truly do not believe that MF will be a bad thing for Newfoundland, BUT if does end up being bad, I am okay with that as a taxpayer and voter.

  • Don II
    January 04, 2013 - 15:11

    Gerry Phalen is right to express his concerns in public regarding the Muskrat Falls project. The Government of Newfoundland abdicated its fiduciary duty of due diligence in sweeping aside the Public Utilities Board. The Government of Newfoundland displayed bald faced arrogance by ignoring the dissenting voices who believe that this project will be an economic disaster. More journalists and members of the public should have spoken out more forcefully, investigated more deeply and demanded more answers from the Government instead of accepting the propaganda and deceit. Three public opinion polls should not have formed the basis for an economic decision of this magnitude. The dissenting voices are likely correct. The arrogance of the people who run the Government of Newfoundland knows no bounds. It appears that these people are imperious, incompetent, unethical and more arrogant than the most tyrannical King or Queen that England ever had. The abuse of power, the dismissal of dissent from well intentioned opponents and the replacement of due diligence with political expedience is a recipe for disaster. Democracy as we knew it is dead in Newfoundland and Labrador. These Government people are dismissive of inquiry and arrogant beyond belief. The Government people with their self appointed expertise superseded and negated the need for independent evaluation and investigation of the Muskrat Falls project by the Public Utilities Board and other independent experts. These are the same Government people who because of incompetence and political expedience expropriated an environmentally polluted pulp mill from Abitibi and took other properties which were not required to be expropriated, an incompetent mistake which cost the tax payers hundreds of millions of dollars to remedy. These are the same Government people who expropriated privately owned land in the town of Cupids to create the Cupids Cove Plantation Provincial Historic Site to commemorate the Cupids Cove Plantation, a place that never existed and is never mentioned in the entire historical record of Newfoundland! It appears that lobbying and ulterior motives were behind those previous expropriations. Now, we are told to place our trust in these arrogant and incompetent Government people as they arbitrarily decide to add $12 Billion to the existing $9 Billion debt and $1 Billion annual budget deficit of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador in order to build a hydro-electric project that may or may not be economically viable! Who are the people who lobbied for and benefited financially from the expropriation of Abitibi, the Cupids land grab and the highly questionable Muskrat Falls deal? Journalists like Gerry Phalen and the opposition must continue to ask questions of and demand answers from the people who really run Newfoundland and Labrador!

  • Cold Future
    January 04, 2013 - 14:02

    It will take some time for the full impact of this money losing giveaway to become fully clear to Newfoundlanders. The unregulated monopoly which will prevent consumers from benefitting from cheap import mainland energy is a clear indication of the disastrous economic viability. The legislation to permit Nalcor to set rates to provide tax revenues to itself and government over and above the revenue required to pay down the debt of the project is crippling to consumers. The about face to use only a portion of the oil revenues instead of all of the oil revenues to pay for it is a betrayal of those who supported the project without understanding it.How can all of this be reconsiled with a governement that presently provides an 8 % rebate on electricity consumption. Fixed income consumers will likely be severely impacted by all this. And the clinching damning of the comsumer is that all attempts to conserve energy or switch to other fuels for heat cannot provide relief because the revenue must be collected regardless if the energy is consumed or not. Sold -of course you're sold down the river like the rest of the NL consumers.

  • W Bagg
    January 04, 2013 - 12:29

    don't matter if you are sold, it's full steam ahead.......................

  • Maggy Carter
    January 04, 2013 - 09:54

    I won't diminish the value of prayer Gerry, but it is a poor substitute for responsible, accountable, transparent fiduciary management. God helps those who help themselves - a maxim all but ignored in this sad tale of gross incompetence, arrogance and greed on the part of government and its big-business bosom buddies. Complicit insofar as its failure to hold government's feet to the fire is the local media. With the exception of the Telegram (and more specifically Wangersky), the remainder of the media has essentially given government a free ride. They lack the resources and, in some cases like VOCM, the inclination to challenge government on its assertion that this project has received objective, in-depth, critical examination and that everything comes up roses. This lacklustre ambivalence on the part of the media unfortunately includes Mr. Phelan as evidenced by this very column. Like many others, he has sat on the fence so long that it must be painful. Like Lorraine Michaels, he has a lot of unanswered questions, he is worried about the economics, and critical of government's handling of it - BUT he's not against it. "I'm not saying kill the project" which, of course, Muskrat's backers will construe as a ringing endorsement. Nor is the public itself blameless. Even if some of these readings of public sentiment were rigged (and as the Telegram reported on Saturday, government has been waging a secret campaign to do just that), it is clear that the public is all but shrugging its shoulders. The polls say 75% feel they are inadequately informed on Muskrat and believe it should be re-submitted to the PUB. But despite those misgivings, two-thirds still want it to proceed. In order to square that circle, one must assume that the public has a high level of trust in its elected officials - something which history, including recent history, clearly shows to be unearned and unwarranted. I would understand all the dithering by all the Gerry Phalens in this province if this was somehow a close call - if the underlying numbers and facts offered even a modicum of proof that the Muskrat plan is sound. But no economist of any worth or credibility would dare offer such an endorsement. No financial analyst would dare suggest that this project could produce one penny of profit for the taxpayers of this province - with or without a federal loan guarantee. What respected independent professionals would conclude, if asked, is that Muskrat is froth with risk - risks that are growing daily as a result of fundamental changes in energy markets in North America. This government has been wilfully blind to those changes. It has adopted a 'damn the torpedoes - full steam ahead' brazenness that would be regarded as irresponsible in any corporate boardroom across the country but absolutely unconscionable in terms of the administration of public funds and the indebtedness of future generations of Newfoundlanders. So - with respect Gerry - what I see in your columns is the kind of pointless wishy-washy rhetoric that covers yourass either way. If this thing - despite all odds - was to succeed, you are on the record as saying you had doubts but you felt it should go ahead anyway. But if, as is more likely, it crashes and burns, you can always claim you were out there raising red flags from the start.

    • RJ
      January 04, 2013 - 14:07

      Progress and greed is king.If you want to live in a fantasy world where ppl in power make decisions for the common man ...write a book.Every man and woman for themselves.Some ppl will lose and some will gain...that's life. Build the fence high in the harbour please.Bring on the bulldozers & get rid of the red tape over Muskrat Falls.. let's take advantage of this time as greedy ppl to make some money. The ppl that are against progress you Have the chance to go off the grid and live in the woods!! :)

  • RJ
    January 04, 2013 - 09:52

    Whine,whine,whine...bring on the bulldozers and let progress demockracy!!

  • Too Funny
    January 04, 2013 - 08:34

    “I do not have enough information to make an informed decision. " Don't you know by now that your "decision" is not important. We are expected not to ask questions but just pay the bills.

  • John Smith
    January 04, 2013 - 08:21 doesn't matter if you are sold on the project...or not.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    January 04, 2013 - 07:17

    Minister Marshall has repeatedly said that Muskrat would, over 50 years, bring in dividends (over and above the 15 billion for debt servicing and operating costs) of $20 billion. ......... Do the math. 240,000 households will pay Nalcor/government that total $35 billion. Why is that extra $20 billion being paid? --- A massive TAX GRAB on low and middle income earners. .......... $35-$40 billion over 40 years was deemed excessive for 35 million Canadians to pay for fighter jets, but somehow $35 billion for unneeded power is fine for 240,000 low and middle income Newfoundland householders........ Why is no one up in arms about that? ..............Especially when Hydro Quebec, instead of waiting until 2041, would likely advance to us by 25 years the 2-4 terawatts of power that Nalcor says we need now? Nalcor could get that same amount of power back post 2041 (when their prospects for selling their already existing excess power could only be better)...... Net cost to the province ----- ZERO.---- (the transmission line only costs $6 billion of that $35 billion). Since we could get the power we need by way of an 'advance' from Quebec, why would the Cabinet impose an unnecessary $29 billion burden on its own citizens ---- a tax grab for Nalcor/Government.